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Delivery drivers’ strike action deepens in northern England

Work stoppages by fast-food couriers in the IWGB union against pay cuts in the so-called 'gig economy' are now spreading from Sheffield to Blackpool, Huddersfield, Chesterfield and Sunderland, reports PETER LAZENBY

WHEN Khalil Lange got a job as a fast-food delivery courier in Sheffield in South Yorkshire in April 2019, it was nigh-on perfect.

The job was with Stuart Delivery, which works with the Just Eat delivery network.

“It was brilliant. I loved it,” he said. “I got on with them straight away. You could log on, log off, whenever you wanted. It was flexible, I could do it in my own time. You could stop work to go do a bit of shopping for the missus.

“There weren’t a lot of drivers, but there were a lot of deliveries and a lot of money to be earned,” said Khalil who is 31 and has a partner and three children.

The drivers were paid £4.50 for each delivery up to 2.5 miles and £7.50 from 2.51 to 5 miles.

There were £15 bonus payments on four weekday evenings and £40 on each of three days at weekends, if they achieved a target nine deliveries. And they did achieve them.

“We did McDonald’s, KFC fast food, Co-op, mostly small parcels short distances, average two miles a job,” said Khalil.

Then came changes.

“They started hiring more drivers, far more than they needed,” he said.

“When they took on 200 more drivers it was good for Stuart Delivery — every job done. But for the drivers there was too much competition.

“It’s brilliant for the employer. They could have 10,000 on the books. It doesn’t matter to them. It doesn’t cost them anything extra.”

The numbers of couriers scrambling for jobs became a problem.

“When I started you could get four or five jobs an hour. Then with so many drivers you were lucky to get three or four jobs, even two,” said Khalil.

With far more couriers than they needed, bosses attacked the bonus system — reducing the £15 and £40 bonuses.

“The bonus fell from 70 per cent of the job to 60 per cent then 30 per cent. They just kept lowering the bonus. Then they reduced it to 90p.

“Since then, we’ve never been able to match the bonus we had previously,” said Khalil.

He said that after the employer had “whittled the bonus down to nothing” the bosses attacked the base rate — payments per delivery.

“It was £4.50 and £7,” he said. “Now it starts at £3.40. The £7.50 is abolished.

“Even if you’re lucky and get three jobs in an hour it’s only £10.20, and you seldom get three jobs in an hour. It’s rare, so the real pay is now about £6.40 an hour. The average courier is working for less than the minimum wage for most of the day.

“Tesco’s rate of pay is £11 an hour — and you don’t have to own your own vehicle.”

The drivers have to provide fuel and own their own vehicles.

“There’s a lot of expense,” said Khalil. “Fuel is about £140 a week. Insurance is £180 a month. Maintenance, tyres — anything that goes wrong you have to deal with it. Little maintenance jobs are £100 a time. Brake pads twice a year, new tyres at least twice a year.”

Increasingly frustrated, Khalil talked to a workmate, Parirs Dixon, a member of the Independent Workers of Great Britain union (IWGB), one of the fast-growing new unions emerging in new employment sectors, especially the gig economy.

“One of the drivers who started it moving, a kid called Parirs, started everything off,” said Khalil. “He was talking to drivers, saying ‘are we going to take this?’ and saying ‘no!’

“Parirs was already a member of IWGB. He said ‘join.’ I joined the union when we started the strike.”

The first strike was on December 6 and they were repeated daily from 5pm to 10pm — the busiest time for fast-food deliveries.

The strikers picketed the food outlets which use Stuart Delivery and Just Eat, such as McDonald’s.

They sent out couriers with a mission unrelated to food deliveries, to spread the strike. Couriers in Blackpool joined the action. Courier meetings took place in Huddersfield, Chesterfield, Sunderland, Rotherham.

On Christmas Eve the Sheffield couriers suspended the strike action over the festive season to give the employers an opportunity to negotiate and make concessions on the pay cuts and other issues.

The workers got the talks they wanted — but not in the way they wanted them.

Khalil said: “The company organised a meeting with a handful of drivers that they picked — not with the union.

“We found out where it was and we picketed the entrance of the hotel. We had banners. They called off the meeting and ran out of the fire exit.”

IWGB Sheffield branch chair Parirs Dixon “crashed” a second meeting — and this time bosses listened to him.

Stuart Delivery agreed to come up with proposals. They were due yesterday. Meanwhile the strike in Sheffield resumed on Monday last week and couriers in the Midlands are talking about joining.

With the resumption in Sheffield came the support the strikers have been getting from the Sheffield public and the city’s trade union movement.

Sheffield Trade Union Council has been to the fore both on the picket line and in aiding and promoting the couriers’ struggle. The TUC donated £200 to the strikers.

The original IWGB member in Sheffield, Parirs, who is 24, said: “Sheffield TUC have been incredible. They organised a meeting place for us, paid for the place. The local Labour Party has been on the picket line. The NHS unions have been great. They donated £500.”

Martin Mayer, Sheffield TUC secretary, takes part in the strikers’ organising meetings.

“It’s not just trade unionists who’ve been turning up on the picket line,” he said. “It’s students and they’ve been absolutely fantastic, from both universities (University of Sheffield, and Sheffield Hallam University). There’s a great sense of solidarity.”

The picketing is proving effective.

“Some branches of McDonald’s have stopped taking orders for delivered meals,” said Mayer.

Alex Marshall is the IWGB’s full-time national president. Previously he was a cycle courier in London for eight years. He sees huge potential in the Sheffield couriers’ action.

“Last Christmas we lit a fuse in Sheffield that is seeing workers kicking off in Blackpool, Huddersfield, Chesterfield, Sunderland,” he said. “There was the speed hump of Christmas which we hit. Now Sheffield has re-started the strikes. Blackpool is ready to go. There are other areas, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, where they’re pissed off. And Rotherham. They’re waiting.

“We’ve seen some incredible organic growth involving people from all sorts of backgrounds. They’ve just literally stood up and said ‘we’re not having this.’ They’ve nipped into their cars and gone to Huddersfield and Sunderland and other places.”

He believes the multicultural nature both of Sheffield and of employment in the gig economy is part of what is happening.

“In Sheffield you’ve got a lot of refugees — Lebanon, Yemen… People indoctrinated with the belief that they’re disposable workers, that they should think themselves lucky to have a job. They’ve been brainwashed into that,” he said.

“Do you know, in the pandemic these guys were working and getting home and stripping to their shorts on the doorstep and going straight into the shower because they were scared they’d infect their families. Some were even sleeping in their cars.

“These people can’t believe how the company is treating them. They’ve realised ‘we’re worth more than this’.”

The couriers are making four demands: a £6 base rate for each delivery, payment for mileage, payment for waiting time — couriers can be idle for half an hour waiting outside a restaurant to collect a meal for delivery — and a cessation of recruitment of more drivers.

The IWGB is aware that in challenging Stuart Delivery it is also challenging international delivery firm Dynamic Parcel Distribution (DPD), whose vehicles are a common sight on roads not only in Britain, but across Europe, Asia, South Africa, India and Brazil.

DPD owns Stuart Delivery and is itself owned by La Poste, the international delivery network operated by France’s state-owned postal service.

Much lower down the pyramid, Parirs has seen Sheffield IWGB grow to 100 members.

“This is my first involvement in trade union activity,” he said. “I’m enjoying it. I actually like it.”

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